Layering materials on a building’s façade is one way to hide the hard work of constructing a technically challenging piece of architecture. By stacking glass, installing a smooth rain-screen or placing protruding bricks on top of flush ones, architects can effectively remove the appearance of any projecting hardware that could take away from the seamless look of an exterior envelope.
To better understand this, take a look at C.F. Møller Architects’ Danish Meat Research Institute built for the Danish Technological Institute in Taastrup. A 71,000-square-foot facility completely clad in brick, it’s impossible to tell that the masonry is made up of prefabricated panels. Not only does the thin brick veneer mimic the depth and texture of a full-brick construction, it was substantially cheaper for the architects to specify before it was completed back in 2014.
The team at C.F. Møller worked with Danish manufacturer SHT A/S to make the spiral pattern for the Institute’s façade a reality. They designed a detailed arrangement featuring cantilevered bricks alternating with sunken ones, creating a pattern of vertical shadows that line the building. This 3-D-centric vision for the structure’s cladding was a direct reference to the other monotonous brick buildings on DTI’s campus, which was originally designed by architect Vilhelm Wohlert in the 1970s.
“We managed to break out of the pattern of anonymous buildings that surround the project,” Peter Klingest of C.F. Møller said. “Ours was designed nearly 40 years after the others were built, so we wanted to show a new kind of structure that still paid respect to tradition.”
Left: Diagram showing outline of prefabricated panels; Right: Sample panel built by SHT
Detail showing projected bay window in the façade of the Research Institute
C.F. Møller and SHT introduced a new, dynamic brick façade that revealed a more contemporary aesthetic that still appealed to the past. They used the prefabricated panels and a series of diffused-glass bay windows to achieve this timeless look and successfully integrate the building within the massive spiral-shaped campus.
One of the firm’s first panel brick projects, Nimbus House in Copenhagen, inspired the team to experiment further with this unique method of exterior detailing and construction. The multistory housing complex features a new type of concrete element that details the facing brick in varying depths. According to the architects, this creates a play of displacements that throw shadows on the sealant where the panels’ joints come together. This project was designed under a concept called Bedre Billigere Boliger (Better Cheaper Housing), which aimed to develop a new living typology that focused on making innovative architecture at low costs.
Left: Detail showing panel installation; Right: Built corner highlighting protruding brick
Nimbus House inspired C.F. Møller’s design for the Danish Meat Research Institute
With the Research Institute, C.F. Møller reiterated this idea but at a greater scale and with a more intricate brick design. In fact, the firm has come a long way with the material. One of their first major competition wins was the design for Aarhus University in the 1930s featuring their first full-brick building. Nimbus House, designed decades later in 2008, symbolized the firm’s initial leap into a new kind of brick construction: prefab panels.
“Brick is kind of in our DNA,” Klingest said. “We’ve developed with bricks in other projects, but Nimbus House was the first time we were using it in a different way to make a pattern that sought to hide the elemental structure. With the Research Institute, we applied the same principles and elaborated even further.”
The project’s unique use of brick casts lines of shadows along the façade at a distance
From a distance, the protruding patterns of brick that characterize the Research Institute make it look as if the architects requested different colors and textures of the clay material. But that’s the beauty behind SHT’s perfect panel construction. The near-60-year-old company offers tile brick elements that are fully customizable and can be easily aligned to an architect’s design details — even projects that break the boundaries of basic brick masonry design.
In the case of the Research Institute, C.F. Møller used this to their advantage and blocked the visually pervasive expansion joints that hold the panels together. Even the rectangular windows, which split up the vertical pattern with their concrete window surrounds, play a key role in the installation of each tile element.
The building’s atrium is also outfitted with the prefabricated brick panels
STH’s tiles, which are composed of 2-inch bricks, 1.7 inches of concrete, Rockwool concrete element batts and a concrete backplate, can be specified up to nearly 26 inches in thickness. This is what gives a project like the Research Institute that additional appearance of stability. In most cases, the total thickness of the insulation and backplate is subject to U-value requirements and from the static requirements for the backplate thickness. While the elements featured on the Research Institute vertically hang, STH offers a maximum panel size of 155 inches by 367 inches. For horizontal elements, the panels can be as large as 368 inches by 157 inches.
Even up close, the exterior shows no visible signs of the panels
It’s important to keep in mind that the larger the panel, the more difficult it is to hide the exterior hardware. That’s why it’s helpful for architects to imagine ways in which the design of their brick envelopes and the placement of elements like windows can deter from the fact that the façade wasn’t built by hand on-site. As seen with the Danish Meat Research Institute, prefabricated panels don’t have to be boxy and boring. They can twist and turn and punctuate a project with the right guidance just like any other cladding material.
Images, details and diagrams courtesy C.F. Møller